The Referendum on Iraq

The Baehr Essentials

[Editor's note: Today we begin a regular series of columns by Richard Baehr, one of the founders of The American Thinker. He has written a subscription—only newsletter of political analysis for many years. In his columns for us, he will cover politics, the world of sports, and other topics.]

The news from Iraq has been very bad the past week. Two dozen Americans have been killed, four civilian workers' bodies were mutilated after they were murdered, and there is now a violent insurrection raging, inspired by a young Shiite hothead cleric. Some political analysts have suggested that whether the Iraq news is good or bad really does not matter for the Bush campaign, since any international news only forces national security to the top of the campaign agenda, and that is Bush's strength. I beg to differ.

At a certain point, some Americans, who are not just reflexive Bush—haters of the left, may begin to question whether our boys should be sacrificed for this madness, and for a people who show such remarkably little appreciation for the sacrifices in blood and treasure we have already made on their behalf. At that point, maybe even in November, enough Americans may decide that these people do not deserve the best this country has to offer. They could turn on the man who sent our soldiers to Iraq. This election therefore will almost certainly not be about John Kerry, but a referendum on George Bush.

Bush's father lost the Presidency in 1992, despite a very successful military operation against Iraq that liberated Kuwait. When the economy tanked, and he showed little appreciation for the anxiety many people were experiencing, voters turned elsewhere. Bush senior was also unlucky. A nutcase populist, Ross Perot, had a short term appeal to many disaffected voters, and polled strongly among white males, the GOP's strongest voting group. Perot hurt Bush much more than he hurt Clinton. Clinton kept talking about the economy in 1992, so much so that many Americans were unaware that the economy was already rebounding smartly at the time of the election. The bulk of the press did nothing to clarify the actual state of economic affairs, leaving in place the Clintonian fiction that America had 'The worst economy in 50 years.'

President George W. Bush will likely have a stronger economy behind him than his father did during his re—election effort.  Summer and Fall constitute the period when voters' perceptions about the race are hardened.

The best that can be said of Senator Kerry is that he is the alternative candidate for those who reject Bush. He is a cold man, with a rich man's tastes, and little visible likeability. In the Democratic primaries, he was considered the most electable candidate, but only after narrowly winning Iowa with a late surge, as Dean and Gephardt faded.  He gained momentum from the enormous publicity overkill showered on the winner of this first caucus,with its barely 100,000 voters. 

A report in the Sunday New York Times suggested that Kerry seems reluctant at the moment to bow to the pressure from many Democrats, and select John Edwards as his running mate.  Kerry's reasoning seems to be that Edwards does not yet have the experience to be President, particularly in an era when national security concerns are so prominent.

This may be an accurate reading of the North Carolina trial lawyer's shortcomings shortcomings, but Kerry has his own image problem, despite the personal gravitas and military background he keeps pounding home. Americans like to see some warmth and charm, and even a bit of the common touch in their President. Kerry does not have these qualities in large supply.

The coolness to Edwards may reflect a fear on Kerry's part that an ebullient, happy warrior running mate like Edwards, with clear star power (however faked the individual campaign performances) would overshadow the dour New England Ichabod Crane figure at the top of the ticket.

The Bush ad campaign has done a good job in the past month, filling in the blanks about Kerry (the indecisiveness, the liberal voting record) while Kerry skied and had shoulder surgery. Kerry campaign surrogates —— the various 527 groups, such as and America Coming Together (a group with ties to former President Clinton) —— have continued to match the Bush campaign expenditures dollar—for—dollar in the 17 battleground states.

But Kerry ads won't form the image of the President for most voters. Bush is a known quantity. Richard Clarke did not do terrible damage to Bush, because it took most Americans about five seconds to recall that a month after 9/11, our forces were taking out the Taliban in Afghanistan, not going after Saddam in Iraq. They also know that Bush's response to 9/11 was substantively different from what the prior administration did after previous al Qaeda attacks against our bases in Saudi Arabia (Khobar Towers), the embassy bombings in Africa, and the attack on the USS Cole.

But Iraq is a wild card in this election. If it turns very sour, Bush could lose, despite a strong economy and a weak opponent. You can pay a price for boldness and decisiveness. Bush has been, in many ways, the least politically cautious President in recent memory, a sharp contrast with his predecessor Bill Clinton, perhaps the most cautious. Let us recall that President Clinton conducted a poll to determine where he should take his summer vacation one year.

Bush could have coasted to victory in the current election. He chose to take the fight to Iraq, at great political risk. President Clinton was so terrified that a single American would die in the Kosovo campaign, that the war was fought exclusively with fighter bombers from the air. Even Apache helicopters were not used, though they might have shortened the war, and minimized the collateral damage on the ground, because they were more likely to get hit, and thereby increase the casualty risk for American forces.

Some risks, political and strategic, pay off. And others don't. Bush, to his credit, took a huge political risk with Iraq, because he thought it was the strategically correct thing to do. Creating a functioning democratic society in Iraq, after decades of callous, murderous, authoritarian rule there, is, as Fred Barnes points out this week, a very difficult task.

Americans, in the internet age, often display a short attention span. But our history is full of long commitments and efforts, involving great sacrifice (World War II, the Cold War), that, in the end, led to success and a better world. Our Iraqi venture is not destined to turn out visibly successful in the short run. At best, we are in a particularly difficult transition period, and the long term trends are favorable. But this is not assured.

If Iraq stays in the news, it will be because there is bad, rather than good news from there. That is what makes banner headlines and leads the television broadcasts, especially among those who are unremittingly hostile to the Administration, despite their pretense of non—partisan journalism. Positive things are getting accomplished and getting done all the time in Iraq, but Americans are dying again, and in horrible ways. For Iraq's future, and for that of President Bush, we must decisively and visibly turn a corner, and soon.

Short Take
In 2002, I contributed to the campaign of Denise Majette a highly—educated, articulate African—American woman, who defeated Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney in Georgia's 4th Congressional district. Majette's triumph, and that of Arthur Davis in Alabama over former Congressman Earl Hilliard, served to put two bright, attractive politically mainstream African—Americans into seats formerly held by anti—Israel radicals.

Majette stunned most political observers last week by announcing that she will run for the Senate seat of retiring Democratic Senator Zell Miller.
Georgia is a state that is trending Republican, and will not likely be competitive in the Presidential race this year. The winner of the Republican primary for the open Senate seat will be a heavy favorite in the November general election race.  By running for Senator, Majette may allow McKinney to win back her seat: a disaster for the national Democratic Party, as McKinney's tantrums and wild statements will have to be reconciled with a national Presidential campaign. The drama of her 'comeback' and the extreme nature of her rhetoric will draw ample press coverage. I believe Majette is making a mistake, for herself and for her party, by running for the Senate this year.